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NHL's poor planning placing avoidable stress on Olympic goal

·6-min read
COVID-19 is still a major issue, a reminder the NHL apparently needed before creating its schedule for the season. (Getty)
COVID-19 is still a major issue, a reminder the NHL apparently needed before creating its schedule for the season. (Getty)

The NHL was perhaps too ambitious with its 2021-22 post-pandemic(ish) planning.

Pierre LeBrun of TSN and The Athletic reported Tuesday that the NHL and NHLPA are showing concern over the intersection between the NHL All-Star Game in Las Vegas and 2022 Olympics. As it stands now, the All-Star weekend scheduled for the first weekend of February will immediately precede the Olympic break, meaning that players involved in both — which will of course be a bloated contingent — will board a charter from Las Vegas to Beijing.

Suffice to say, there is every right to be concerned about managing COVID-19 and avoiding an outbreak among the player population to be featured at the Olympics.

According to LeBrun, the solution at current moment is to place considerable restrictions on the all-stars, meaning that Vegas won't be Vegas, at least that weekend, for all of those involved. Still it seems like the NHL is taking a sizeable gamble with this decision to shoehorn the showcase weekend into such a tight and pivotal window. 

Unless each event and obligation takes place behind glass inside a sanitized bubble, the worst-case scenario of COVID-19 being present on the flights from the United States to China is a distinct possibility.

Why the NHL is choosing to do what it hasn't previous, which is to organize an All-Star weekend in an Olympic year, is both a valid and easily-answerable question. 

The NHL is in no position to turn down a massive money-making opportunity coming out of the pandemic, and its new broadcasting partner, ESPN, clearly wants an All-Star Weekend to be part of its early-February programming slate. 

If the NHL had it its way, we know it would be a restriction-free, sponsor-pleasing All-Star weekend in Vegas and no Olympic participation. But a promise is a promise. And one was made to the players.

Situations in Ottawa and Long Island are in themselves further evidence that the COVID-19 situation will remain a consideration now and into the future for sports leagues like the NHL, as well as other organizations.

It seems the NHL needed to be reminded of that just this past summer when it was mapping out the schedule and beyond for the 2021-22 season. 

Up: Johnny at evens

I wrote about the sustainability of the Calgary Flames' incredible start earlier this week — and before they claimed another win, this time over the Chicago Blackhawks — and regrettably omitted one wild statistic: Calgary had claimed the first 18 goals scored at five-on-five with Johnny Gaudreau on the ice.

Gaudreau and Co. did finally slip in the win over Chicago after an unfortunate turnover from Jacob Markstrom wound up in the back of his net. Still the Calgary top line secured one of its own, and another into an empty net. 

Now on the right side of 95 percent of the goals scored at five-on-five is, of course, in the category of unsustainable for the Flames moving forward, but Gaudreau's bounce-back campaign has been the biggest plus in a season that's exceeding everyone's expectations. 

What seems to have unlocked the optimized lineup for Calgary was the decision to split Gaudreau and long-time centre Sean Monahan, who is now the axis of a somewhat adrift third line. Gaudreau's new centre, long-time teammate Elias Lindholm, has put him in such a better position to adapt to the Darryl Sutter brand, and to be himself while doing it. 

So much for an apparent disconnect. 

Gaudreau's season, and how the Flames manage his pending unrestricted free agency, is a massive story to watch for what's turning out to be one of the league's elite teams.

Down: Sweater design

It's been a tough week for hockey jersey manufacturers and enthusiasts alike.

New threads have been served up to Twitter and Instagram commenters each day this week, and have essentially been met with unanimous disapproval. 

First it was New Jersey's JERSEY jerseys, which were mocked right up until Hockey Canada released its designs for the Canadian men's, women's and sledge hockey teams the next day. Then before we could completely come to grips with the lifeless look planned for the Canadians, USA Hockey released uniforms that accomplished nothing more than helping those north of the border cope.

It is incredibly odd how it's suddenly become difficult to design decent-looking hockey sweaters. For a moment ignoring the new Devils' thirds, there are very few sweaters, if any, in the NHL currently that are obvious misses. Both Canada and the United States have historically had simple, classic, and undeniably effective looks. 

We don't need a summit. Just get back to the basics.

Up: Trade intrigue

We hear it all the time: There are too many teams with too much money tied up into their current rosters for big trades and a meaningful transactions to occur in-season. While I do think that is sometimes go-to filler for folks more connected than myself looking to avoid saying "I got nothing," there is, of course, truth to that. According to CapFriendly, there are just as many teams completely capped out at zero dollars as there are with real financial flexibility.

Despite that, two intriguing names — and two players who have led their teams in scoring when lumping the last three seasons together and who both earn a little over $5 million — have floated into the free-market ether this week. Both J.T. Miller and Kevin Fiala of the Vancouver Canucks and Minnesota Wild, respectively, were named among potential trade candidates. 

In some ways, it makes some sense to suggest they should be swapped for one another. Miller better fits the Wild scheme and timeline with two seasons, including this one, remaining on his deal. The issue is that the wildly-talented but inconsistent Fiala needs to negotiate a new restricted free agent contract this summer with $5.1 million being the jumping-off point. 

That seems too rich, or, at the very least, a headache Vancouver might not want.

In any case, Miller is one fascinating trade chip if available. He's gritty, he facilitates top talent, and he's been Vancouver's most consistent point producer, lending nearly a point-per-game with the Canucks since his acquisition from the Tampa Bay Lightning. 

Any contender with cap space — or even without it, temporarily — should be inquiring. 

Up: PLD —> CBJ

Speaking of big trades, we won't see both components of last season's blockbuster go head-to-head Wednesday night with Patrik Laine still nursing an oblique injury, but Pierre-Luc Dubois will return to Columbus nonetheless.

We've seen a far different player in Dubois when compared to last season, which proved to be far too tumultuous. Between the friction with former head coach John Tortorella, the trade, the two-week quarantine and the assimilation process, Dubois failed to gain any traction last season, collecting just 21 points in 46 games split between Columbus and Winnipeg.

This season has been different for the former third-overall selection, who has settled into the Jets' top six. Dubois has already surpassed his goal total with 10 in his first 18 games and is just five points shy of equalling his total production from last season.

It will be interesting to see how he's received in Columbus after his lack of effort, which was akin to an on-ice protest, led to his departure. 

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